White Doves at Morning — James Lee Burke ****+

coverThis might best be called creative non-fiction, as Burke has written a novelized version of his own family history and an ancestor, Willie Burke, the son of Irish immigrants who settled in New Iberia, Louisiana. Willie Burke — impulsive and idealistic — is drawn into the Civil War with his best friends, despite his doubts about the cause and his dislike of slavery. The story moves back and forth between his experiences (including the bloody battle at Shiloh) and what’s going on in New Iberia, where women and a few men who have evaded fighting for one reason or another continue to fight wars of their own. Abigail Dowling, a nurse from Boston, is an abolitionist who is not well loved by the local patriarchy, but she struggles to carry on. The pivotal character is a slave called Flower, the daughter of a slave woman and the plantation owner. Flower’s struggle to maintain some semblance of dignity and independence (from her father/owner as well as from the abolitionists) is sensitively portrayed, without sliding into the realm of the sentimental.

I have a low tolerance for Civil War novels; I think I overdosed on them some years ago, and so it takes an unusual story to really capture my attention. This one did, although I will also say that I wonder how far Burke went in his fictionalization and idealization of an ancestor with such enlightened sensibilities.